We need to reclaim our history

The woke are trying to recast Britain as irredeemably racist.

Robert Tombs

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Topics Identity Politics Politics UK

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When last summer I ventured into the ‘history wars’, by gathering together a group of historians with a website called ‘History Reclaimed’, I felt a bit like one of those keen army volunteers in 1914, expecting that the war would be over by Christmas and wondering whether I would arrive in time to see any action. After all, it wasn’t long after the initial Black Lives Matter protests when the angry crowds had disappeared. Statues seemed increasingly safe as habitual indifference to monuments returned. Even the remaining diehards seemed to be isolated individuals agitating on social media. In short, the ‘history wars’ seemed to be getting low on ammunition.

How wrong I was. Because the real dynamism was coming not from indignant crowds of young and not-so-young BLM crusaders, but from inside major institutions, such as universities, museums, churches, charities, art galleries, libraries, local authorities and the civil service. Sometimes the impetus came from elements of the staff. Sometimes from the management. Often from both. The past was being used in a political and ideological programme. Everywhere, history is at the very heart of wokery.

In Britain’s case, the two dominating themes have now become slavery and empire. History has always been influenced by politics and ideology. But being a historian involves testing political and ideological theory against evidence: that is what makes the subject more than propaganda or merely an antiquarian hobby. So ‘history wars’ have always been an inherent part of the subject, and when people say that every generation writes its own history, this I suppose is what they really mean: changing preoccupations have always been tested against historical evidence.

From the late 19th century to at least the 1960s, left-wing history focused on the sufferings of the working class due to the Industrial Revolution and / or the supposed failure of Britain to have had a proper revolution like France. The most interesting and sustained debate was about the English Civil War as a class struggle that failed to lead to revolution. On such issues the great names of the left, such as Christopher Hill and EP Thompson, went into battle. Their contemporary concerns were unconcealed: Hill once remarked that his dislike of Charles I was because he reminded him of Neville Chamberlain.

Today’s left shows hardly any interest in these issues, or in the history of the peasants and workers of Britain – a reflection of a fundamental change in its whole ideology and sensibility, and indeed of a huge shift in the political landscape.

When these earlier history wars were being fought, the critics of Hill, Thompson et al – whether conservative, liberal or just less ideological – tended to point out that the evidence undermined their sweeping theories. The Royalists were not feudal lords. The Puritans were not budding capitalists. The Levellers were not socialists. The Diggers were not forerunners of the Labour left. The Industrial Revolution did not lower living standards. Today’s history wars need to spark the same kind of debates, rather than leading to ‘cancellations’, enforced orthodoxy and a dialogue of the deaf.

In history wars, history is invariably being read backwards. Assumptions about present-day society are used to give meaning to the past – rather than, as would be more intellectually coherent, understanding of the past being used to illuminate the present. Evidently, the past can influence the present. But the present cannot influence the past. Or can it?

Our present history wars are tacitly based on that assumption. Why are we so focused suddenly on slavery and empire? One of the most prominent exponents of this historical genre, David Olusoga, recently argued in the New Statesman that it was merely about bringing to light a story that had ‘long been purposefully marginalised’. This is surely an exaggeration. I spent half my undergraduate career 50 years ago studying precisely these things. It is lamentably true that there are many people who know very little about the past, but one would have to be very ignorant indeed not to know about slavery or that there was once a British Empire.

What is really happening is not that light is being cast into dark corners, but that assertions about the present are being used to create a new narrative of the past. The contemporary assertion is that Britain (and indeed the whole of the Western world) is based on racial oppression, and that this was uniquely created by slavery and empire – hence the new emphasis on these once rather old-fashioned subjects. A student recently put it to me in precisely these terms: ‘racism’ means white people treating black people as inferior, due to slavery. When I asked his view on racism and slavery in Asia and the Muslim world, he was nonplussed.

Most writing on slavery and empire today, even including some works of substantial scholarship, seems to be shaped by the critical-race-theory model. So it is argued that British popular culture was deeply affected by empire – even if the evidence is disputable. It must be implied that not only great national institutions, but also individuals (Hogarth, Nelson, Jane Austen…) were uniquely tarnished by slavery, even though slavery until the 19th century was almost universally practised and therefore to some degree tarnished every country and civilisation. It must be shown that Britain was more deeply guilty than anywhere else. So it is asserted that Britain’s wealth was founded on slavery – an assertion based on little or no economic analysis. Britain’s unique role in the suppression of slavery – the truly historic change – to which the public, the navy, and the empire itself were committed at huge cost, is dismissed (‘purposefully marginalised’?) as merely a cynical pretext for imperial expansion and further economic exploitation. So slavery was racist, but abolition was racist, too.

Why does this matter? Because it is used to give credence to the image of a fundamentally racist Britain today, even though there is ample contradictory evidence. As in earlier history wars, narratives of the present are used to create narratives of the past, which are then employed in a circular argument to buttress the narratives of the present. So if we reject the assertion that we are a deeply racist society, we must also contest the interpretations of the past on which it is built.

Robert Tombs is a historian at Cambridge and an editor of ‘History Reclaimed’.

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